I was chatting recently with an acquaintance who informed me that she was contemplating participating in a water skiing competition. Not only did she qualify for this event, but she boldly told me she was considered the star of her age category. Yet something was holding her back from registering. I asked her why she was reluctant to sign up.
“Fear of failure,” she admitted.
Whether it’s sports, art, business or some other domain, even the most accomplished individuals have their moments of insecurity and self-doubt. The expectation to excel imposed by others or oneself can add a lot of pressure.
The first time I began training to run a half-marathon, I was afraid to share my goal with others. Every conceivable negative outcome crossed my mind, from being unable to complete my training due to injury, to collapsing before I got to the finish line. I didn’t want my friends to think of me as a failure. Eventually, I realized my thinking was all wrong. Real friends wouldn’t regard me as a failure, even if I didn’t complete the race. I’d come so far from my days as a couch potato to an avid – albeit slow and steady – runner. The fact that I was determined to give it my best effort was a commitment far greater than any other I’d ever made with regards to sports, and greater than many people ever make.
Whereas I used to cry at the finish line if I didn’t achieve a personal best time, I’ve gone into recent races with the attitude that I’m going to enjoy the experience, no matter the outcome. I’ve learned there comes a point where you have to accept your limits and be grateful for what you’re capable of doing.
Perhaps if my acquaintance didn’t feel the pressure to be a “star,” she might feel less anxious about participating in the water skiing competition. Fear and stress in small doses is a good thing, but too much gets in the way. Sometimes, we just need someone to encourage and remind us that there is more than one way to define success. If you don’t try, you’ll never know how you would have done. That’s an easy out. It allows you to avoid the risk of feeling like a failure. But you also risk missing out on the thrill of a personal victory.
Success and failure may have been defined for you as a child in the traditional way, perhaps by a coach or parent. Success is when you win; failure is when you lose. Should success be measured solely by a medal or a rank? Is life that black and white? That perspective leaves little wiggle room and does a great disservice to those of us who aren’t the fastest, the strongest, the most agile or most skilled – as adults or as children. Then there’s the more recent philosophy at the opposite end of the spectrum. which declares everyone a winner. No more scoring. No more losing. After all, we want our children to develop a positive self-image, to participate, feel included, have fun and demonstrate good sportsmanship. How do we merge a utopic view in which everyone’s a winner with the reality of our competitive world?
I think success, at least for adults, is having the guts to go for something even when others try to discourage you. Success is learning to believe in yourself even when others don’t believe in you. Success is putting in the time and effort to prepare – perhaps more time and effort than required by those who are naturally athletic. Questioning old assumptions about our inadequacies and our strengths is a key step in redefining success.
Not everyone can be a winner according to conventional definitions. But I like to defy convention! Just as you have to train to improve your athletic skills, so too must you practise positive thinking. Clear your mind of negative mental imagery: a finish line that appears so painfully far in the distance that your legs will buckle under, or an ominous wake of biblical proportions that will knock you off of your skis. When thinking about signing up for a sports competition of any type, remind yourself that, no matter what happens, you’ll go home with the invaluable prize of knowing all you overcame to get there and you had the courage to give it your best shot. Now that’s what I call success.